When Stony Brook alum Paul Thompson ’05 was growing up in the ‘70s, the fish were so plentiful in Shinnecock Bay, “they practically jumped into our boat,” and he remembers pulling in nets loaded with oysters and clams. But today, when Thompson and his daughters fish their favorite Heady Creek spot, they frequently return empty-handed.
The problem: Shinnecock Bay, on the verdant south shore of Long Island, once a vibrant and lush ecosystem with clean water supporting fish and shellfish, is now faced with toxic levels of microalgae (also known as brown tide), a massive loss of species, and no chance of recovery without significant and meaningful scientific engagement.
Enter Stony Brook University: encouraging public-private partnerships pursuing important and relevant solutions through collaborative teams comprised of world-renowned professors from Stony Brook’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, surrounding communities, and concerned philanthropists.
“The need is reflected in the enormous changes in the ecosystem that have occurred over the last thirty years,” says Stony Brook professor Dr. Christopher Gobler, who, along with Dr. Ellen Pikitch, will oversee the Shinnecock Bay Restoration Program. “For example, in 1984, Shinnecock Bay was part of a Long Island ecosystem supplying most of the East Coast hard clams. Today, the only clams in Shinnecock Bay are more than 25 years old. In 1984, residents of Quogue who water skied on Shinnecock Bay, remember falling into dense beds of sea grass. Those sea grass beds are gone–and this contributes to the brown tide problem that continues to kill the waters.”
The Shinnecock Bay Restoration Program continues Stony Brook’s tradition of conducting and promoting authoritative research and launching real-world applications on a variety of seminal environmental issues. Indeed, for many decades the men and women of Stony Brook have emphasized the practical nature of science in unexpected, forward-thinking ways. Here, Dr. Gobler’s initial work in Shinnecock Bay confirmed that algae bloom was destroying shellfish species in the bay. Gobler’s team has discovered and investigated the biology behind the decline in the bay’s water quality, shellfish populations, and seagrass habitats. Applying what the team has learned, the Shinnecock Bay Restoration Program offers real solutions to correct the problems.
“Overfishing, elevated CO2 (acidification) levels, and algae blooms have wiped out the once-thriving hard clam fisheries in western Shinnecock Bay,” says Gobler. “This means that the western bay is now a dead zone for shellfish. We believe our restoration approaches—harvesting seaweeds to absorb nutrients and to inhibit harmful algae blooms, expanding existing eelgrass beds, and then restocking shellfish—will begin to restore the health of Shinnecock Bay.”
For Stony Brook, private philanthropy is a critical component of its commitment to excellence. “This project has the potential to have a profound impact on Shinnecock Bay and the restoration of ecosystems around the world,” says Dexter Bailey, vice president for university advancement. “The proposal from our School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences is comprehensive, thoughtful, and calls for measurable results throughout the process.”
The proposal also caught the eye of Laurie Landeau, a noted aquatic animal veterinarian, and her husband, Bob Maze, vice president of Marinetics, Maryland’s largest and most successful oyster company.
“Based on the level of detail and expertise I have seen, I have absolute confidence that Stony Brook’s team—its professors and scientists, institutional advancement officers and community outreach professionals, and graduate and undergraduate students working on the project—will succeed,” says Landau.
The passion Landeau and her husband Bob Maze have for helping to restore and preserve the ecological health of marine environments is evidenced by the Laurie Landeau Foundation’s recent $1.5 million gift, which will be matched the Simons Foundation for a total impact of $3 million for the first phase of the program.
The Restoration Program, which will require additional funding for completion, will work to bring together local stakeholders who care about the Bay, including environmental groups, town officials, and local homeowners, with the goal of restoring the bay and creating a template that can be used on distressed ecosystems across the globe.
Landeau and Maze encourage others to follow the path set by their foundation. “What distinguished this project from others—and nothing like this has ever really been attempted before—is the behind-the-scenes work and pre-planning performed by all the players at Stony Brook,” says Landeau. “All the various constituencies, such as town officials, local government, and even the fishermen, are onboard.” With a partnership strengthened by smart, dedicated, and dynamic University faculty members and unsurpassed communications, the Shinnecock Bay Restoration Program is off to a compelling start.
Stony Brook has a strong record of accomplishment over many decades—and continues to make a difference in the lives of thousands of young people each year seeking to better their futures by pursuing undergraduate and advanced degrees in scores of academic disciplines. The Shinnecock Bay Restoration Program further advances one of Stony Brook’s central missions: to provide leadership for economic growth for the neighboring Long Island Communities.
“I expect the Landeau Foundation’s return on investment to be significant,” says Maze. “The return of aquatic vegetation, the restoration of keystone species—the health of the entire bay—is at stake. There will be measurable results and real-time accountability. I urge other foundations, corporations, and alumni to join us.”
“This,” adds Landeau, “is the right time and the right place for this project.”